They were supposed to be the future - so why haven’t modular phones taken off?

The consumer benefits of a Lego-style phone are obvious. Dave Hakkens, founder of Phonebloks - the modular smartphone movement that influenced Project Ara’s design - notes: “You can upgrade, repair and customise it. It will last longer and you can adapt it to your needs.” 

Pretty compelling, so why aren’t consumers biting?

“I’d say phones like the LG G5 aren’t really selling because it’s not really modular, more of a first step to break the phone apart and customise it. But it won’t last much longer, yet. It’ll take some time before the perfect modular phone is developed.”

Dov Moran, founder of Modu, agrees that current phones haven’t nailed it. “On the technical side the issue of easy connection and disconnection of the modules is not resolved yet.” (Google were originally using electropermanent magnets for this, but changed the design after jokingly saying they “failed the drop test.”) It’s a serious point, though: when you’ve put your phone together piece-by-piece, you need the whole to be strong enough to withstand drops and back pockets. Yes, it’s easier to repair a modular phone, but is it also easier to break one?

Moran continues, “Phone lifespans are relatively short, and inexpensive. When we talk about replacing modules, the price goes down so fast on ingredients like the screen, memory, camera, that what is the high end of today would become the low end of tomorrow. The hassle of buying modules - which one, shipment etc - is large compared to ‘give me a new phone’ where all the ingredients are upgraded.”

Some people prefer ready meals to recipes

Some people prefer ready meals to recipes

Modular phones are touted as being better for the environment, but Moran points out that they could actually lead to more waste: “When you upgrade your phone, you do not throw away the old one. You keep it as a backup or give it to someone else. While you upgrade a module, you have nothing to do with the low-end part.” 

It’s likely a secondary market would spring up, but given how fast entire phones depreciate, how much could you realistically expect to get for last year’s camera module on eBay?


To fulfil the promise of modular phones, we’d need to carry a plethora of easily-lost bits around with us - as Moran puts it, “A minimal configuration when I am doing sports and a large one when I use it as a phablet in a meeting requires having all the parts handy, and it dilutes the theoretically nice (but not so practical) concept.”

Hakkens agrees. “For the current phone manufacturers, there’s not much of a benefit. However, there would be for other companies like camera, speaker or battery manufacturers that currently can’t contribute to the mobile phone market: they could with a modular phone.”

“Could you leave out the bit that lets people call me?”

“Could you leave out the bit that lets people call me?”

In other words, if a manufacturer can make a popular enough base phone, we could end up with an App Store-style selection of components to choose from. 

That sounds like a good thing, but consider all the junk apps on iOS and Android: do we really want the hardware equivalent of that? Is it worth it, when most of us just download the same 20 apps as everyone else anyway?

Building the future

There’s still hope for the modular dream. Despite having fatefully relinquished Project Ara to Google, Motorola haven’t given up on the piecemeal phone, launching the modular-ish Moto Z earlier this year. Not everything on the Moto Z (and its variants Force and Play) can be swapped, but there’s a good range of magnetised accessories including a wireless charging battery pack, speakers, a projector and even a 10x optical zoom.

Meanwhile, ethical, repairable smartphone Fairphone 2 has been well-received and is available for preorder now, while the similar Puzzlephone has been postponed to 2017 due to delayed EU funding, but is apparently still happening.
For now, though, it looks like modular accessories are as mainstream as we’re going to get: things like Mophie’s battery cases, and Olloclip’s clip-on lenses

The best example is probably Otterbox’s uniVERSE, a modular iPhone case that allows you to swap in modules including extra storage, power, and even a credit card reader, but it’s a long way from a whole phone.

iven all the projects that have fallen by the wayside, can we still look forward to a modular future? Dave Hakkens says yes: “I would imagine all tech to be modular [in the future], especially considering the Internet of Things where all our devices are connected to the internet and become little computers. What if a tiny processor component of your fridge or washing machine breaks? Do you throw everything away? I’d say swap in a new block!”

Dave Hakkens presents his vision to, er, a bridge

Dave Hakkens presents his vision to, er, a bridge

Dov Moran sees an even more radical pathway for modular tech: modular humans. “I do believe that at some time a [modular smartphone] solution will evolve, but it is competing with the other solution of having parts of the phone installed in our bodies while connecting with external peripherals. I know it sounds like sci-fi but this will happen. I am not sure this is so far away.”

You heard it here first, folks.